Fall River Coho Salmon Fishing

Many salmon fishermen seem to think that when the saltwater salmon season ends, that salmon season is over. For the other 1/2 of us in the Pacific Northwest, it is just starting in the rivers. These rivers could be large like the Columbia or the smaller tributaries. These smaller rivers will usually need to be coastal rivers or tributaries of the Columbia not that far from salt water.

Fishing can be bank fishing, or of course from a boat, IF conditions allow. By this I mean a prop boat can be used if in tidewater where this sometimes extends for 10 miles or so upstream. A jet sled or drift boat would usually be required when the water begins to get shallower, with riffles, debris etc.

Coho tend to stay more in the shallow waters and close to the bank, even in the brush if during high muddy water. If you ever get a chance to observe Coho migrating upstream in a rain swollen creek, it is an eye-opener. They will run in schools, stay out of the main faster current as much as possible, even go right thru tall flooded grass a foot from the bank if they are cutting a corner.

Some early runs of Coho tend to have lockjaw so you may have to be creative to get them to bite. However most late runs (late November into January) seem to be better biters.

Hire a Guide ; Hire a guide familiar to the river you want to learn, as most of us can not find enough time to even learn a fraction of what is needed to understand even basic tactics. Tell him you want to learn. OK, I am sure most will not reveal all their little secrets, or allow you to take a photo of their special plug or setup(because of the internet), but most that I have used are great guys and are willing to share more than I can remember in one setting. Sure, I used his gear and special colored plug all day, but I would have a hard time exactly describing it to you the next day.

Time of the Year ; Here, in the Pacific Northwest, depending on the river system, timing is the critical thing for fall Coho fishing. First off, the fish need to be there, and Second, the water levels are critical. The water needs to be/have been up enough to bring the fish upriver, but yet low enough to be at a safe and fishable level. The fish will trickle in to start and then be pretty constant, with surges right during a high water, even during a flood. However not much fishing is done with MUDDY water and debris/logs floating downriver. These fish will move upriver on this high water and then stage in backwaters or slackish water waiting for their eggs to mature.

Then you may have to contend with commercial gill netting also, either tribal or non treaty. And they will usually be fishing below you.

The time of the year will usually be from late September to the end of the year, even smaller runs into February for those rivers that have a late run of these fish.

Boats could be a drift boat or outboard powered (usually a jet sled). The farther upstream from tidewater the more the need for the jet sled as compared to a prop driven boat. You may even seen a one man pontoon boat on some rivers. For these boats to be used (other than the pontoon), a boat launch needs to be in a somewhat close approximation of the fishing area, more so for the drift boat where they are usually launched upstream and taken out below that.

One thing that would be critical for a drift boater, is to know beforehand if there happened to be any newly formed log-jams after a high water between the put-in and the takeout, unless it is in a location where the boat can be drug around the obstruction, OR the rower had eaten his Wheaties that morning to be able to row back upstream a great distance to the put-in.

Fishing Rules Change ; Be sure to look at the fish regs for the specific area you intend to fish as limits can change and usage of barbed hooks may be allowed after November 30th on some rivers.

Method of Fishing ; There can be many types of methods used here, trolling (usually used mostly in tidewater) normally becomes less effective as time passes and the fish move farther upriver.

Many fishermen say that these Coho have lockjaw, well maybe we fisherpersons are a contributing factor here. Those that have found a method of catching them in Puget Sound, say that these fish are SPOOKY. They will usually be feeding on top of the water and you can see them. Do not run over and try to troll over or around them, even if you are casting spinners, get near and allow the tide to carry you nearer. It seems that even noisy outboard motors may be a contributing factor in the spooking, if so, then troll your lure WAY BACK. I also have a friend who fished tidewater for these late fish and he has found that when he was drifting and casting, when another boat came trolling by, the fish he was catching scattered. He would wait a while, then make another drift, casting where they were before. With this learned, for these tidewater/river fish it may be best to drift, using a electric trolling motor to maintain steerage and cast spinners/plugs. Here in a moving river, may be the place for using a drift-boat.

Casting to where they may normally accumulate seems to be more effective. This water would normally be slower water where they can travel without putting forth a lot of effort or even rest. They will hit a lure more out of habit of being in a defensive mode if it gets close to them. Some colors seem to work better than others under varying water conditions, however usually the brighter colors, (red, pink, chartreuse, or a combo of these) seem to work best. But don’t take just the one color that worked last year and hope it is still the go to color this year.

Side-drifting would be a very common method. Here the boat drifts downriver with the current, with the operator possibly maintaining position using a electric trolling motor. The fisherpersons cast toward shore and reel back. The boat can be floating parallel to the shore or at 90 degrees from it. If more than one person fishing and the boat is parallel, the upper rod is cast toward shore first, when the boat drifts a few feet, the second rod is also cast, and the third also. This compensates for each fisher not casting over and tangling with the others.

Sometimes, especially if there are 3 or more fisherpersons in a boat, then the 90 degree method works better. Here the rods are cast downstream as far as possible, reeled in as the boat drifts toward them. This allows for more coverage of more water. But the reel in speed has to be enough to compensate for the boat’s downward movement, otherwise the lure’s movement will be minimal, not presented properly and possibly not being very effective.

Another method is find a seam, say below a riffle where the fish have to pass through and drop an anchor. Run a plug in the seam between fast water and the milder water. Don’t be afraid of running a large Kwikfish as these fish often take the larger plugs as an intrusion on their territory and will strike it because it pisses them off.

Lures could range from spoons, spinners, plugs or even bobbers with eggs are effective under certain circumstances. Some more so, in different rivers or types of water than others.

Tidewater – In tidewater, the old traditional method is trolling, and the usual method will be dragging a spinner. But as mentioned above, hold closer to the banks. In certain rivers where there is underwater limbs, logs or any debris, where hang-ups do occur, I have found that if you add a walleye type “bottom walker” sinker attached to the mainline in front of the lure which you want about 24″ – 36″ behind the walker. This sinker’s system is a Ell shaped wire with a 1/4 oz. sinker on the longer bottom leg. This leg wire when encountering a limb will ride and usually lifting your lure. You will also notice/feel it and can reel in slightly to avoid becoming hung up.

Walleye type “bottom walker” used for fall Coho in tidewater


The same principal can be used for casting, but substitute a 1/8 oz. beadchain keel/swivel.

 Upriver – Upriver farther for the boater, where a jet sled is popular, you will usually run upstream then side-drift downstream near one bank that looks like it has productive water. Cast toward shore, even into small pockets right at the grass/bank edge, using spinners or plugs. Some may try eggs, but this seems to only work well where the fish are right fresh out of saltwater. It seems that once these fish enter freshwater that they are pretty well out of the feeding mode and usually only attach lures that are close and irritate them.

Cast in to these small holding areas like the edges of fast moving water or seams. Or try to find a side channel or slough. Many times these fish will hold in these sloughs on their movement upriver, especially if they encounter high and muddy water. After the high muddy water starts to subside, the main river will have minimal visibility to where it is really unfishable. But if you can locate any of these sloughs that have a feeder creek emptying into it, the water in this slough will be clearer than the main river allowing you fishable water while other fishermen stay home.

I know a few fishermen who carry a 12ga shotgun to shoot tree limbs off, retrieving their lures.

Some fishermen have perfected using jigs also. So do not become set in just one method or lure. Keep your eyes and ears open.

Boaters have the chance to locate themselves in a travel lane of the migrating fish. This can be anchoring just below or above a riffle. The usual method here is using a spinner, spoon or plug. It can also be finding a point that the fish when moving upriver will have to come around, narrowing their travel lane. If you can locate one of these, anchor so your lure is again in that expected travel lane. This lane may only be 2 or 3 feet wide. This is where more than one rod in the water may be helpful in locating this lane. If you are pretty sure fish are moving upstream, reposition the boat slightly.

Traveling Fish/ Holding Fish – In most rivers, these Coho do not really hold low down, but travel through. So you will encounter brighter, fresher fish there, but fewer concentrated. And your timing has to be perfect when they are there (remember – fish where the fish are). Farther upriver nearing their spawning grounds, they tend to gather/hold up, waiting for late rains allowing them to move up into the creeks to spawn. So if you can locate these holding areas, your odds are greatly improved. Some good looking water may be barren, and the only way to find out is to drift through it a few times, casting as you go.

In the photo below, look at the muddy water. These fish were pulled from a slough that had a small creek feeding it with clearer water.

A good day on the water in early December with bright Coho to 18#

The Rod : There is no real need for heavy rods here. Coho put up a fight, but do not make long runs like a Chinook. And for you boating fisherpersons, you can position the boat to your advantage, plus it seems the farther upriver nearing the fish’s destination, they don’t put up the same fight as they do closer to saltwater. A bankie may opt for a longer/ heavier rod than the boater however. A 8′ 6″ or 9′ medium action steelhead or salmon rod should be fine for a bankie. For a boat fisherman, you can get by with a shorter, lighter rod, many even preferring a 7′ 6″ medium rod, (even a trout rod) because a boater has the ability to move thereby possibly keeping the fish out of the brush. Plus the shorter lighter rods are a arm-saver if you put in long hours trying to get your limit. However the lighter rods require the fisher to make the hookset as compared to the fish doing it, or just a flip of the wrist with the heavier rod. But many have and will be caught on 8′ 6″ rods.

The Reel : For trolling a small level wind casting reel like the Ambassadeur works well for back-trolling, but for casting, you will usually see a trout/steelhead size spinning reel being used.

The Line : Personal preference may enter here unless you will possibly be using a jig. The reason is that when the fish hit a jig they usually do it on the fall of the lure. With the newer spectra type lines like Spider Wire or Power Pro, you can feel the lure better and may detect a hit, set the hook before they spit it out. The normal size in the spectra lines would be 30#, not that a line that heavy is needed, but these lines are smaller than monofilament and are harder to keep spooled when that small. Many who use spectra lines will also use 8-10′ of 20# mono as a shock line on the outer end at the lure. These can also be used on spinning reels with good success. The only drawback here is if you happen to allow any slack, tangles in spectra are real hard to unravel.

Monofilament I think about 20# is OK if you are a boat fisherman. If you are a bankie, then maybe 25# would be better. These are even capable of landing a straggler Chinook. These fish usually are not leader shy, especially in colored water that time of the year.

Here I like to use the colored line, yellow or green. It helps us old geezers see where the line is better.

 The Lure : Boy here goes a can of worms as everyone has their own favorites. So those listed below are possible starters. The one thing that you need to remember is that any lures, especially spoons, spinners or plugs have to be reeled in at a speed that is conducive to their functioning properly. This means, try different retrieve speeds to where you ultimately find one that gives your lure the right function or depth in the water you are fishing.

Spinner – The standard is a Blue Fox in either a #4 or #5 size. Body color of these may be hot pink, purple, or chartreuse. Blade color usually nickel as the water is usually not clear. However if it is clearer, then the gold or brass colored blade seems to work better. You can even up your odds by adding a 1 1/2″ or 2″ squid at the hook end.




Spoon – There are many to choose from here. A FST in sizes from #2 to #4. A Canadian Wonder or it’s copies in sizes in the 2″ size range.

Plug – Most all plugs do not require weights as they are designed to dive as they are retrieved. The plug that is about the right size and action for these fish is the Wriggle Wart. You want a bright enough color to excite the fish, usually a orange, or pink, partly chrome body and sometimes a chartreuse bill helps. Sometimes a “Pirate” color (chrome/blue/red/yellow) may do the trick. If you can’t find the right color, buy a rattle can or two of spray paint and custom paint yours.

Most fishermen will remove the triple hooks, install a 5 bead chain swivel off the front ring and a #2/0 Sickle or Big River Bait hook instead. This makes for easier release of the dark fish and does not cut down on the hooking ability. Also it is easier to unhook and salvage from a unseen underwater limp, than 2 triple hooks are.

It seems that certain parts of a river may dictate which color they like the best, so don’t you and your fishing partner use the same color unless you have proven that this color is the favored one in your chosen spot on the river.


 Spi-N-Glo – These can be effective when anchored in a seam and with a dropper weight so they are near the bottom. Sizes from #4 up to #0 in any color that will attract them.

Corky & Yarn – These have been a producer for many years, so don’t get carried away with all the newer lures.

Jig – Here you can use a smaller lead headed (1/4 to 3/8 oz) marabou/hair jig under a bobber, or when used alone, a 1/2 oz. leadhead jig with a black, red or orange hoochie skirt attached.

Walleye type “bottom walker” used for fall Coho in tidewater

EggsCured salmon roe in a brilliant red, and cut in a size of about  a 25 cent piece.

Here eggs & a cheater Here we have eggs & a Spi-N-Glo


Scent – If you are inclined to use any scent, probably shrimp would be the best. Even wrap a scrimp tail on a lure using stretchy thread.

Cleanliness – Clean your lures after usage. Use Lemon Joy soap and after they are clean, even rub some special scent on them just before using.

Landing Net : All boaters will have one of these, and it is recommended that the bankies do also.

Cold Weather : I have found that many times if it is near freezing in the morning, that the fish do not bite until it warms up a bit, I have seen it until 2 PM some times. My quick method of determining about the magic temperature is when I can take my gloves off and not freeze my fingers, the fish seem to become more active.

Dress Well : Here, the weather will depict your attire. Always dress in layers so that you can take clothing off, IF it warms up. Have rain gear handy. I like to have a set of light rain-gear (Frog Togs) in my day pack. But put them on before you get wet. If the weather is colder, wear your long handled insulated underwear and snowmobiling / bib insulated pants and jackets. You may even want to bring the knitted ski masks especially if on a jet sled for a long early morning ride.

If you are a bankie, unless you have a good gravel bar or shack, it may be beneficial to wear hip or chest wader boots. And a Personal Floatation Devise.

Boats : Here will depend on what you have. Water conditions may well depict the size and type of boat. In the lower river in tidewater, there is usually no threat because of no fast water or riffles / logs to navigate. Many 12′ to 14′ aluminum boats are used here. However some fishermen will also use a 16′ – 18′ convertible topped boat, because that is what they happen to own.

Farther upriver you will mostly see open jet sleds or drift boats because of different water conditions, that being pools with a tail-out and riffles with water only a foot or so deep there. Most jet sleds will be from 16′ to 20′ and without the top. Most times you will be side-drifting and need to stand up casting. Remember if you stand up in a smaller boat, wear your inflatable life vest.

If however you are anchored, allowing the current to work your spoons, spinners or plugs, then a convertible top can be a welcome item if the weather turns bad. And a propane heater may be very welcome also.

Also it is advisable to wear your inflatable preserver AND the “dead man’s” lanyard switch when you are running the motor as on a river things can happen rather rapidly.

Catch & Release : Late in the season, you will catch some ugly fish, like dark red, and large hooked noses on the males. The females fare a bit better, but they are the egg bearers and even a brighter fish, so if possible consider releasing them anyway.

As they near spawning, the meat deteriorates, turning from bright orangeish red down to even a gray. You may want to release the worst, giving them a reprieve, trying for a fish in better condition. One well known river guide’s method of culling, is that if the fish’s mouth has discolored at the gumline, release it. However if the gumline is still white, the meat will be OK.

Some say the “BOOTS” will still smoke up OK. Well, to each his own, but if you want a good end product, you need to start with at least something not quite dead yet.



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